Kannapolis council asked to end prayers

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 26, 2012

By Hugh Fisher
hfisher@salisburypost.com
KANNAPOLIS — An attorney from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has asked the Kannapolis City Council to stop opening its meetings with prayer.
In a March 14 letter to Mayor Bob Misenheimer and the Kannapolis City Council, the Foundation’s staff attorney, Patrick C. Elliott, claims the city violates the Constitution by allowing council members to open meetings with what he calls “sectarian prayers.”
According to the letter, the request stemmed from a complaint by a member of his group who attended the February 13 City Council session.
He refers to an audio recording made of that meeting at which Councilman Tom Kincaid is quoted as ending a prayer with, “For it’s in Christ’s name we pray, amen.”
Kincaid could not be reached for comment before press time.
In the three-page letter, Elliott sets forth legal principles and court decisions which he says prohibit Kannapolis from holding such prayers as part of official meetings.
He states the Foundation’s position that “prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive.”
“Local government should not be in the business of performing religious rituals, or exhorting all citizens, regardless of beliefs, to participate in a Christian prayer, or even asking citizens to show deference or obeisance to this ritual,” Elliott writes.
On behalf of the Foundation, he asks Kannapolis to “drop its devotional practices” and to inform them of the steps the city will take to comply.
The letter describes the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin, as “a nationwide nonprofit organization, which works to protect the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.”
The group claims some 17,500 members nationwide, including over 400 in North Carolina, and a state chapter, the Triangle Freethought Society.
The Post learned of the letter from a source familiar with the issue, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Reached by phone Sunday, City Manager Mike Legg confirmed that the group had made this request and provided the Post with a copy of the letter.
Tonight’s Kannapolis City Council meeting will be the first since the letter was received.
Legg said City Attorney Wally Safrit will advise council members of their options in a closed session following regular business.
North Carolina law allows members of governing bodies to discuss certain matters in closed session to preserve the attorney-client privilege.
However, any motions or votes pertaining such an issue must be held in open session.
Legg did not elaborate on what those options might include.
A phone message left for Misenheimer was not immediately returned.
Reached by phone Sunday, Mayor Pro Tem Gene McCombs said that, as far as he was aware, the city had not had any contact from the Foundation in the past.
But McCombs declined to comment on the issue until he had been advised by Safrit.
Similarly, Councilman Randy Cauthen said he would have to wait until after tonight’s discussion to give any comment on the matter.
Councilman Darrell Hinnant also said he needed to hear from the city attorney before he could make a statement.
And he mentioned recent cases involving Forsyth County and other municipalities, including one named in Elliott’s letter.
“I need to clearly understand those cases and how they can affect what we might do … whether we continue to do what were doing, add something or change something,” Hinnant said.
Councilman Roger Haas said likewise, but also said he expected tonight’s meeting would open “as usual.”
The agenda posted on the city’s website includes an invocation to be given by Cauthen.
It also includes the Pledge of Allegiance, which is not a typical part of most Kannapolis City Council agendas.
“I am hoping we can continue the tradition we have always done, in a way that is legal and constitutional,” Haas said.
A call to Councilman Ryan Dayvault was not immediately returned.
The Kannapolis City Council meets tonight at 6 p.m. at the Kannapolis Train Station, located at 201 S. Main St.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.

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